Northern Powerhouse


Architects render of Northern Powerhouse (as supplied by Alan Lane)

There’s been talk.

The politicians from the capital have started their pre-election, regional tour.

Nick Clegg – in a radical piece of recursion – instructed the Manchester creative-entrepreneur-set to ape Berlin and ‘use vacant buildings as a base for arty start-ups and collectives‘, which came as some surprise to author and DJ Dave Haslam who points out that the Berlin model had been, at the very least, influenced by Manchester’s creative use of space.

There’s been a call to arms from the chancellor: The cities of the North must come together, because ‘in a modern, knowledge-based, economy city size matters like never before.’ In a service economy which promised shiny new jobs to take the place of the the old and mucky ones outsourced by the epic footsteps of globalisation. Yet automation and algorithm short-changed the new-jobs-for-old-mantra; the precious skilled up and rejuvenated workforce seem to have ended up shelf-stacking and amazon-picking.

Its not quite what I’d imagined. As a kid the future promised space travel and hover-cars, it promised a utopia where robots would do all the menial jobs leaving us to truly find our potential. Then the robots turned out to be us, and rather than striving to make the world a better place we ended up unemployed.

Still it doesn’t stop me enjoying the phrase Northern Powerhouse.

In my head it looks a bit like this:

Northern Powerhouse. Final version released to planning.

Northern Powerhouse. Final version released to planning.

Actually, and despite where the phrase originates, I really think it’s a super, smashing, sensitive, sensual explosion of culture stuff. There’s a wealth in the talent of the North, sloshing about the place like messy puddles in rain. Ongoing and nascent collaborations are happening fast and loose all over the region. In fact, whilst the push for partnerships from central government, arts council and other funders comes from a place of austerity – delivery of more bang for less buck – it does appear to have provided a bit of a nudge when it comes to developing opportunities for new and brilliant associations and relationships between artists, venues, producers, audiences and participants.

Necessity being the mother of inspiration.

Of course the Powerhouse is actually already here, and it’s built not with bricks and finance – but with tendril connections between the folks of QuarantineSlunglow, Forced Entertainment, Third Angel, 20 Stories High, Eggs Collective, Invisible Flock, Unlimited (and on and on); between those established and those brand new – corralling new audiences from new places. Its in the changes of what performance can be and is, and perhaps in the migration of all kinds of people away from a capital which holds houses and flats as uncle Scrooge’s investment, not homes.


Typical London apartment block.

Recently Lyn Gardner wrote a lovely piece about work at Sadler’s Wells that took the eminently pragmatic view that in developing future audiences the best place to start is at the beginning, building “strong work for children and families”. The difficulties and the joys of programming for families and children are also touched upon by Maddy Costa in her Railway Children review, (and now shooting past at the supersonic rate of social media, an all caps Twitter scream exclaims MATILDA TICKETS ARE £95!).

Meanwhile, up here in the Powerhouse there’s Manchester’s Z-Arts with their extensive family programme of things to watch and do; Contact’s emphasis on empowering young people (the Agency project, a collaboration with BAC, even making the Leader’s Blog), and their Young Company having made fascinating work with performance legends such as Forced Entertainment’s Cathy Naden, Coney’s Tassos Stevens and now Stacy Makishi. Moving out and away from my own city there’s the indomitable Slunglow touring beautiful work for children and their adults; and the amazing 20 Stories High, who make precious, loud and splendid things for and by their community – work that resonates on both an epic and intimate scale.

I’ve felt for a long time that in the main, Manchester’s theatre audience are more conservative than many other cities, our most successful fringe venues and festivals – 24:7, Studio Salford, JB Shorts – being overwhelmingly dominated by traditional plays. No regular Buzzcut or Forest Fringe, but some splendid storytelling nights – producers and venues still trying to lift the fallen weight of greenroom (big shout to Word of Warning goes here!). I’d like a Northern Powerhouse that sees a Manchester audience expanded and enhanced by our more adventurous cousins from across the Pennines, over the river and out by the sea.

Political Powerhouses (it seems) must be made by an injection of largesse (money and ideology), and there seems to be a strange movement of money up here in Manchester. The fundraisers are still filling in the gaps in the fit-out of arts mega complex: Home, and also for Contact’s 21st century refurbishment plan. Our library, galleries and museums are in the process of, or have been, refreshed and rejuvenated, yet suddenly out of thin air lands a multi-million dollop of cash for a palace to the arts that we didn’t even know we wanted. Perhaps it’s a little like the mayor that we voted against, yet somehow we’ve been granted like a gift.

Facilitating a powerhouse spread across the north doesn’t seem that compatible with spending what amounts to a quarter of the annual Arts Council England budget, in one city, on one building.

If anything, that action seems almost designed to build spite and resentment. With so little subsidy around, it’s an easy trap to feel that someone else got your money. I don’t know how much has been spent in Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds or Bradford – but over the past few years up here in Manchester we seem to have been pledged or spent something like £120m on bricks and mortar (along with chrome, steel, glass, hope, expansion bolts, dreams and vision). Folks I’ve chatted with and twittered to seem pretty happy and hopeful for Home and Contact, or at the very least ambivalent – but I’ve yet to speak with an arts (or not arts) professional who is less than bemused by the £78m Factory.

Of course it’s a power play. The Ferrero Rocher on the top of the big money of devoManc – the secret deal to piss off the north. Or re-make it in a particular image.

The £78m Factory, Manchester.

The £78m Factory, Manchester.

A Northern Powerhouse can’t be built on such a peculiar inequality, or by replicating a model of London and the regions. It can be built by children and their adults, making and doing new and excellent things, smeared across a region that’s connected by passion, brains and the industry of imagination.